The Offensive Gospel

warbBy Joe LaGuardia

In a society where people seem so easily offended, there is no surprise that few call themselves Christians.  Christianity is an offensive faith, there is no way around it.

Unfortunately, for too many, it has become offensive for the wrong reasons.

Several weeks ago, controversy surrounding a seasonal red Starbuck’s cup flooded social media with tirades against the “removal” of Christmas from the public sphere.  Christians were ready to offend others and throw political correctness to the wind if there was so much as a threat to “take Christ out of Christmas.”

The Starbucks controversy, however, was no controversy at all.  Yet, the confusion revealed the power of Christian imagination and the swiftness to which Christians will play victim in an increasingly secular society.

The “red cup” controversy also revealed the great sensitivity that Christians feel towards notions of religious liberty.  We no longer fight legal battles over prayer in schools or the right for clergy to claim housing deductions on taxes, but over whether Christians should be forced to serve pizzas to same-sex couples or share church campuses with organizations that refuse to discriminate according to sexual orientation.

That this comes off as offensive rather than noble is not besides the point; it is the point.  It’s a “if we can’t beat them, we’ll offend them” type of campaign in the name of Christ that has become none other than a religious badge of honor.

Many Christians find biblical support for this attitude towards secular society in a handful of New Testament scriptures, all too often taken out of context.

It was St. Paul, after all, who claimed that we are not to please people but serve God, all the while claiming that persecution results from the offensive cross of Christ (Galatians 1:10; 5:11).  In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian churches, he writes that the message of the Gospel and the cross is but “foolishness  to those who are perishing” (1:18).

Why would Christians not use the language of persecution and offense when describing these various interactions with a more inclusive, secular society?

A closer reading at the Bible, however, paints a very different picture when it comes to Christian persecution.   St. Paul did not have the world in mind when he wrote about the “offense of the cross,” but the very religious leadership who excluded people based on ethnic and ideological differences.

Later, when St. Paul carried this message into the gentile church, he argued that people did not have to become Jewish in order to believe in Christ and be saved.  Those offended by this radical message of liberation and inclusion were not pagans in Roman society, but Jewish Christians who placed doctrine and tradition over the people whom God had called them to bless.

This was a radical, offensive gospel precisely because it valued inclusion, avoided discrimination and hate-speech, and served all people regardless of their belief.

Paul was not a rogue in this mission.  He learned it from Jesus, who offended priests and Pharisees alike by eating with tax collectors and sinners, welcoming children, touching lepers and talking to women, and telling parables that shocked the imagination rather than affirmed the status quo.

Both Christ and Paul served outsiders and affirmed each person as a child of God.  Theirs was a mission to build up and embrace rather than demonize and exclude, and in every instance they regarded their lives as something to lose rather than something to defend, sustain, or bolster–even at the expense of welcoming strangers into their lives and sacred spaces.

In a world in which people of faith are beheaded and massacred by radical extremists, some of the things that concern us within our homeland should not qualify as persecution.  Instead, we should be so adamant in our love for others–rather than a swiftness to offend others–that the only people we turn away are the very ones who have no room in their hearts for people different than they.

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“Fear and Trembling” at the coming of the Lord

fear-of-god

By Joe LaGuardia

What is it like for you to experience God when God draws near?

Some say that experiencing God is like being a first-time father in a labor and delivery room as his wife is pushing and breathing and crying and hoping.  New life is about to erupt on the scene, and its the most beautiful thing in the world, but also the most terrifying.

Others may say that meeting God is like visiting the tiger at the zoo.  One is enthralled with the beauty and hypnotized by its deep-set eyes.  There is awe at the beast’s power and majesty, but no one wants to jump in the enclosure and give it a hug.

Yet others might compare their experience of God by referring to a movie or parable.  The “Life of Pi” comes to mind–a story about a boy and his animals stranded on a life-boat in the middle of the ocean.  There, tragedies and storms, as well as serenity and enlightenment all provide opportunities to meet the Divine.

Psalm 114, which recalls God’s liberation of Israel from Egypt and God’s decision to call Israel home, communicates one author’s profound experience of God.  It is a short psalm, but its poetry is rich in its use of creation metaphors to describe God’s homecoming for them…and for us.

“Judah became God’s sanctuary,” the psalter recalls, “And the sea looked and fled…the mountains skipped like rams” (v. 2, 3, 4).

God’s power and majesty was on full display when God saved Israel from Egypt.  Israel: A small, tribal people enslaved by one of the most powerful and technologically advanced empires in the ancient world.  God: Creator of all life, one who chose Israel to call home.

It was a heart-shattering,  empire shattering, creation disturbing notion: God and Israel, together.

What else is there to do but ask questions?

“Why do you flee, O sea?  Why do you skip, O mountains?”

And pose a challenge: “Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord” (v. 7).

Such questions accompanied by a command make it seem that the psalm gives mixed messages.  How is it that, in one breath, the psalter wonders why creation flees in fear from the coming of the Lord; but, in the next breath, commands the earth to, well, fear God in trembling repose?

Perhaps the secret lies in the word, “tremble.”

First, it is hard to tremble in God’s presence when you’re too busy running from Him.

Second, if you read the Bible cover to cover, you would note that those who tremble are the very same people who come into contact with God and are changed forever.

In the Old Testament, the people of Israel trembled when God gave them the Law.  Moses trembled when he met God face to face.

In the New Testament, people and demons alike trembled in Jesus’ presence.  The woman who was hemorrhaging for years, upon being healed by Jesus, bowed down in worship to him, “trembling” (Mark 5:33).

Mary and her friends “trembled” after meeting the Risen Christ at the empty tomb (Mark 16:8).

Crowds trembled at God’s power when the disciples performed miracles; Peter mentioned that unrepentant sinners are unrepentant precisely because they “tremble not” (2 Peter 2:10); and Paul encouraged the Philippians to “work out your salvation in fear and trembling.”

If you experience God with mixed feelings of awe and majesty, as well as fear and trembling, then you are in good company.

And who can blame you?  God is so amazing, so much larger than we can imagine; how else can we respond?

Psalm 114 gives us two choices: We can either run away and keep God at arm’s length, or we can come into God’s presence and be utterly transformed into something new.  It is awesome, but it can also be frightening.

Sometimes God comes to us in a still, small voice.  Other times, God comes to us and scares the dickens–and the demons–out of us as we tremble in His presence.  But let Psalm 114 encourage you today: flee not; God is present.

God’s Gift of Grace (John 8:2-12)

anxiety

Text: John 8:2-12
Title: “God’s Gift of Grace”

I.

She tried to leave before sunrise as conspicuously as possible.  She even wore those big sunglasses that the famous celebrities wear when they try to avoid the media.  But it was as if they were trying to trap her, as if they had known.  She felt like Lindsey Lohan, and she imagined that the Pharisees and scribes were the Paparazzi.  They seemed to be everywhere, and they caught her leaving the home of her lover no sooner than she had locked the front door.

Perhaps she wanted to get caught.  There’s a saying that those who sin do so boldly because the guilt is so hard to bear, and it is sin that garners attention.  Some say sin is merely a cry for help.

By now, the sun was inching over the horizon and they began to pull her towards town.  She knew that this was going to be a scandal, although the Pharisees couldn’t stone her like Moses’ law commanded.  The Romans outlawed that long ago.

No stoning for her today, only humiliation and excommunication.  If she was lucky perhaps she could head north to Samaria, find a good job and make ends meet.

II.

As they went along, she heard them talking about some Jesus fellow.  He must have been quite a character for all of the conversation they made about him.  Last week was the Festival of Booths, and Jesus and his followers had apparently come to Jerusalem.  He accused the Pharisees and the scribes of not knowing the law.

“What learned man was this,” she heard one Pharisee ask another, “One who comes from Galilee and claims to be a prophet?”

She realized something at that moment.  The Paparazzi had little interest in her affair.  It was Jesus they wanted, it was Jesus all along.  She had become an object for their ruse, a mere pawn in their game.  She was the bait.

III.

The sun rose higher in the sky now.  People started to recognize her in the midst of the entourage, sunglasses not withstanding.   She cursed herself more: She should have left in the middle of the night.   What person in her right mind would leave when even a hint of light is there to shine upon the sinfulness of one’s deeds.   We all run from the light, but eventually the light catches up with us.

And it wasn’t enough for them to bring her to the town!  Straight to the temple they went, throwing her up the stairs and through the portico like a rag doll!   What humiliation!  Surely, she would get stoned, never mind Roman law!

They pushed her in front of Jesus, interrupting him while he was teaching a small group of disciples.

“Teacher,” they said, “This woman was caught in adultery [she cringed…], caught in the very act itself [tears started to well up in her eyes].  Now in the law of Moses, it says to stone such a woman—(see, Jesus, we know our law after all!)—so what do you propose we do with her?”

A tear ran down her eyes as she tried to look to this stranger from Galilee.  Would Jesus rouse the crowds and have her stoned like they suggested?  It would happen only at great risk to himself—the Romans would find out one way or another.

Or would he appear to be too submissive, or worse, break Moses’ law—a divine law she was all too familiar with?  They would have grounds to arrest him either way!

She closed her eyes and held her breath and waited for the poisonous conviction to come upon her like the executioner’s sword.

A minute passed; nothing happened.  The Pharisees and scribes were losing their patience.  They questioned Jesus again, but he seemed to be ignoring them.  He was doodling in the dirt at her feet.

She couldn’t tell what he had been doodling beyond the blur of her tears.  They may have been words—envy, lust, greed—she couldn’t tell.  Perhaps it was the proverbial line in the sand.  She imagined that it was, and she imagined that the line he drew put both of them—she and Jesus—on one side and the Pharisees on the other.    But as quickly as she rubbed her tears away, Jesus wiped out the doodling in the dirt with his sandal.

Then she heard his voice for the first time.  It was humble, but authoritative; Galilean in dialect, but confident in tone.  She didn’t realize that her hands were at her own mouth as she watched him begin to form words, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Curious words, and certainly not what the Pharisees and scribes expected.  It wasn’t what she expected, and it certainly wasn’t an adequate answer to all of the questions they had asked.  It wasn’t an answer at all.

IV.

She looked to the Pharisees and scribes now.  It was their turn to be on the receiving end of her tears and quiet whimper.  But they began to leave.  First this one, the one who grabbed her at the house; and then that one, the one who kept cursing Jesus all the way to Jerusalem.  The others left one by one too, each one with shoulders slumped and eyes as downcast as hers.

“Woman,” Jesus said, startling her from her stupor, “Where are they?  Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir.”

“Neither do I condemn you.  Go, and from now on, do not sin again.”

It was light out by now, and a breath of life filled her with hope.  Here was a teacher who had every right to accuse her and give a conviction, to send her to her death or at least excommunicate her from among her neighbors, but he simply gave her a pass and a challenge.  Nothing more, nothing less.

The sun was out, but it was as if she was seeing that light for the first time in her life.  It was a gift, and it was liberation, and it was an act of forgiveness and it was permission to break off her affair without repercussions.

Go, and sin no more.  It was as if the sunrise was a metaphor for something else: the light had just turned on and cleansed her for no good reason other than the fact that Jesus said it was so—no condemnation, no conviction.  Grace and freedom all in one swoop.

Then he continued to talk,  “I am the light of the world,” he said,  “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

V.

It was like that story about Moses that she learned as a child—the one in which Moses went up on a mountain and asked to see God.  God said that no one could look at Him and live, so God decided to place Moses in the cleft of a rock, hide Moses’ eyes as He passed, and let Moses look at the glory of the Lord from behind.

The glory had been so breathtaking, so vibrant, that when Moses came down from that mountain, the people couldn’t go near him.  His face was shining like the sun.

Were the Israelites afraid of him because he was so blinding and bright, or were they afraid like she had been because that divine light would reveal the sins and failures, the guilt and struggles they all shared?

She remembered the promise God told Moses during that divine interaction:  “I am a God full of mercy and slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and forgiveness.”

Just as Moses hid from God’s light, the Israelites ran from that glory of God.  She too—the adulterer that she was—ran  from the light; but, now, here she was with Jesus—all exposed and vulnerable, fully in the light.

This light, the “Light of the world!”, redeemed her and liberated her with new life, a second chance, a clean start.  The sun rose in her heart, and she felt alive like never before.

She recalled a song she heard on the radio earlier that week,

“The sun comes up, it’s a new day dawning;
It’s time to sing your song again.”

It was grace—God’s grace. ..the single word that best describes God’s relationship to humans, that best describes how much God wants to restore people and be in communion with them, not because of what they do or even because of who they are, but simply because that’s God’s way of expressing God’s love for us.

She had one final thought: What was more scandalous than her act of adultery?  Was it her affair, or was it the act of God’s forgiveness of her adultery with no questions asked and no debts to pay?

It wasn’t a stoning she received; it was salvation.

VI.

A late professor of mine, Dr. Daniel Goodman, once asked in a sermon similar to this one: How do you run a church on grace?   When we practice grace, as scandalous as it is, are we called to be permissive, or are we called to bring people’s sins out into the light so that we can tell them to “Go, and sin no more”?

I think it’s neither. I think that when a church practices grace, we don’t do God’s job of revealing and judging sin; nor do we downplay the repercussions and consequences that all our decisions have on our life.

Instead, I think that the church is called to practice grace by forgiving people of their sins, opening their eyes to Christ’s love, and walking with them through the consequences of actions and decisions that are often too complex for us to understand in the first place.

That is why Jesus said that we are to visit people in prison—we don’t visit prisoners to free them–that’s God’s job and God does that in His timing—rather, we are called to be present with prisoners—all prisoners, not just the ones behind bars, but those who are imprisoned in sin and circumstance—in order to share the grace of God even if we think that others are undeserving of it.

We share grace because we are all beneficiaries of it, and we all are in need of that sunrise in our hearts time and again, the kind of sunrise that reminds us just how amazing God’s grace really is.